Mother Nature meets Father Christmas


ANOTHER LIFE:NOT SINCE the first pre-dawn unwrapping of a Christmas Annual for Boys have I leafed through a new book with quite the wonder commanded by The Natural History Book: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth.

This volume is the size of an old-fashioned family Bible, weighing more than 3kg and numbering close to 650 pages (the postage is €14). With a reputation already for this sort of thing, Dorling Kindersley has turned the tables on attempts to entice readers on to the Kindle and its kind. It took computers, indeed, to make this book possible, organising its content, assembling some 5,000, often stupendous, photographs from all over the world and offering a mammoth treasury of life for a mere €36, but in no way could its awesome companionship be equalled, piecemeal, on screen.

The book pictures some of every class of life on the planet, from microscopic viruses to giant tortoises, peacocks to corals, aardvarks to Ziphiidae (the beaked whales), each with potted biography and measurements. Rocks and fossils help to illustrate the unfolding of the natural world, a tale told by a largely British scientific team and “authenticated” by America’s Smithsonian Institution – all, I am pleased to see, firmly loyal to Darwin and evolution.

A slim Irish book, self-published, offers pictures to be admired in quite a different way. Daragh Muldowney is a young Dublin photographer (and ebullient surfer) whose exceptional eye for beauty found gems for his Jewellery Boxin rock pools around the whole coast of Ireland. Travelling in a camper van, he found the sea anemones in full bling at Valentia Island, Co Kerry, but, crouching beneath an umbrella to pierce the veil of the sky, he has also composed brilliant art from far less obvious forms and colours of marine life. Jewellery Boxoffers almost 50 images and costs €24.95 (including p&p) from

The macro lens is also the tool of Carsten Krieger, a German photographer long based in Ireland, whose work makes a baroque delight of The Wild Flowers of Ireland(Gill & Macmillan, €29.99). I have already praised Declan Doogue for carrying the ordinary, flower-loving reader into the deeper satisfactions of field botany, but Krieger’s rousing gallery of flower portraits (as in the little bog asphodel) will clinch its Christmas popularity.

Paddy Dwan, a press photographer in Waterford, is also passionate about wildlife and the river that runs by. Mark Roper is a well-honoured poet living farther up the Suir in Co Kilkenny. Together, in The River Book(€25, including p&p, from, they celebrate this slow southern waterway with its mud and misty willows and the rich affinity of life along its banks. Dwan’s photographs are often memorably tranquil, but he is constantly alert to the moment: the little egret rising, trailing diamonds; the kestrel hovering in the dusk. Roper weaves his own evocative poems with voices from present and past, telling of cot, prong and scallop in crafted lifestyles all the Suir’s own.

Other rivers, often in spate from mountain bog to sandy shore, tumble through Seán Lysaght’s rough Mayo landscape, nourishing 25 years of the work distilled in his Collected Poems(Gallery Press, €13.90). An enchantment with birds came early, with wren, chough, twite, merlin pacing his steps across moors, islands and lonely strands where “the hanging stalks of marram / rest their tips on the sand / like minute hands and the wind / spins them round in a compass.” It still serves his deeper, sometimes harsher meditations on the disjunct bonds of humankind and nature.

“He fused into the white mist of the sun, and a mass of starlings rose to meet him, as though sucked up by the vortex of a whirlwind” – not from a poem, but a sentence almost at random from The Peregrine,by JA Baker. Originally published in 1967, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of British nature writing and has now warranted reprinting, by Collins, as a £20 hardback that includes its companion, The Hill of Summer,and recently discovered diaries from which both books were drawn.

Baker watched his peregrines as they hunted birds in winter across the flat marshes of the Essex coast, and cycled a network of lanes in a hinterland then still deeply rural. To him this was “land as profuse and glorious as Africa”, and his exploration of its wildlife was intensely and lyrically described. His books set a standard of field observation and sense of encounter that Mark Cocker, in an introduction, credits with prompting Britain’s new flow of fine nature writing. Baker himself died in 1987, aged 61. The vigour and toughness of his prose may be at odds with the image of a naturalist on a bicycle, but people mad about aspects of nature are often not what you’d expect.

My most warmly recommended book among the Christmas selection is The Butterfly Isles(Granta, £20), which, while totally obsessive, is also as entertaining and effortlessly instructive as any nature book I’ve read. Patrick Barkham is a young feature writer for The Guardian, with a mum and a dad and even, before she dropped him in despair, a girlfriend. As he observes, the reason why butterflies became so notably a male obsession may have to do “with the male inclination towards mania”. Certainly, his marathon of dashing about to see all of Britain’s 59 native butterfly species in his spare time in one season of spring and summer bore compulsion only matched in the twitchers after rare birds, almost all of whom are male.

Ireland has a mere 29 resident butterfly species, so that many of Barkam’s most keenly sought types (purple emperor, Duke of Burgundy, Camberwell beauty, swallowtail and so on) would not be encountered here. But two quests brought him to the North: to a meadow beside Lough Neagh for Ireland’s oddly special species of wood white and to the Murlough dunes for marsh fritillaries. Both were in the company of Irish lepidopterists quite as much fun as himself.

There’s nothing obviously odd, either, about Niall Mac Coitir, who works for Fingal County Council, except his passion for research into folklore. After books on the myths, legends and folk beliefs about trees and plants, he offers Ireland’s Animals(Collins Press, €24.99), with original watercolours by Gordon D’Arcy.

The animals are broadly defined, to include frogs, bees and the deargadaol, and the folklore can demand a resilient appetite for the unlikely. “It was believed”, and so on, but how rarely, at this remove, have we any clear idea why.

I was intrigued by the chapter that draws on early shamanistic ambitions of human transformation into animals. “By imagining ourselves as different animals in visualisation techniques,” Mac Coitir urges, “we can access inner reserves and insights that might be otherwise hard to bring to mind.” Thus, like the stag and his antlers, “we must take the burden of leadership on our shoulders”. But then, like the wolf, “it is sometimes necessary to show our teeth if we want to get things done”. One for the Dáil library, perhaps.

Eye on nature

I find that the squirrels in the Nice/ Villefranche area of Provence are the same size as our red ones but are black. Is this coat colour usual to the Mediterranean coast or are these black squirrels a local population? Does Canada have black squirrels?

Catherine Cavendish, Sandycove, Dublin

The black squirrel is of the same species as the American grey squirrel introduced to Europe. Its dark coat is the result of a naturally occurring mutation of the gene that governs fur pigmentation. The black squirrel has the same size, behaviour and habitat as greys, and is also found in North America and several places in Britain.

A group of magpies, blackbirds and starlings were mobbing a bird on a patch of grass in a nearby garden. The bird had its wings spread out and was not dissimilar to a thrush but slightly bigger. As I approached it flew off pursued by magpies, and from the corner of my eye something that had been on the grass flew off in the opposite direction. I figure that it was either a sparrowhawk or a merlin.

Tom Foley, Salthill, Galway.

A merlin is slightly bigger than a mistle thrush and smaller than a sparrowhawk. It seems that the raptor was taking some prey.

  • Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo; e-mail Please include a postal address.